11 Heart-Friendly Habits
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After exercise, the best way to take care of your heart is to be a smart eater. Eating fresh foods shields the heart for the long haul by staving off weight gain and diabetes, both risk factors for heart disease. In the short run, high-fiber, low-trans-fat foods flush the heart's plumbing and keep it working smoothly day after day. "What you eat for dinner tonight will influence your chance of having a heart attack tomorrow," says Oz. "It's that closely related." For a happy heart, follow these five rules.
1. Focus on Fiber. Upping your fiber intake can lower your risk of heart disease by roughly 30 percent, according to a report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Foods high in soluble fiber, such as oats, rice bran, barley, strawberries, and citrus fruits, help lower cholesterol. Foods high in insoluble fiber, such as whole wheat breads and pastas and most vegetables, are also filled with heart-healing antioxidants, including vitamin E, selenium, and phenolic acids. In the blood, these antioxidants keep fat molecules from oxidizing so they're less likely to clog artery walls. Aim for six daily servings of whole-grain foods, including whole wheat bread, oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, and bran.
2. Peel Some Produce. Fruits and vegetables are another important source of fiber and antioxidants. Try to get at least nine servings a day. This recommendation is based in part on studies like Harvard's Nurses' Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-up Study, which tracked the diets of nearly 110,000 people over 14 years. Those who ate the most fruits and veggies (eight or more servings a day) had 30 percent fewer heart attacks and strokes than those who got 1.5 servings or less a day. Especially heart-friendly choices include leafy greens, cruciferous veggies such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts, and citrus fruits and berries. If nine servings feels overwhelming, take baby steps: Harvard researchers found that for every single serving of fruits and vegetables you add to your daily diet, your risk of heart disease drops by 4 percent.
3. Get Your Omega-3s. Dozens of studies show that eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the two omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil, lower triglyceride levels, reduce blood pressure, and boost arterial function. The American Heart Association encourages healthy adults to eat at least two four-ounce servings of oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines, a week. On other days, reach for foods rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a third source of omega-3s found in flaxseeds, canola oil, and walnuts. But don't rely solely on ALA for your omega-3s: The body converts only 10 percent to 15 percent of ALA into omega-3s.
4. Eliminate Trans Fats. Calorie for calorie, no other macronutrient increases your risk of heart disease more than trans fatty acids, which sneak into your diet through fast foods, packaged snack foods, crackers, and bakery goods made with hydrogenated (hardened) vegetable oils. For every 2 percent of your daily calories that come from trans fats, your risk of heart disease soars 23 percent, according to a 2006 review in The New England Journal of Medicine. Trans fats increase harmful LDL cholesterol, decrease beneficial HDL cholesterol, and promote inflammation—all of which endanger the health of your heart.
Although the Food and Drug Administration has been requiring food makers to list trans fats on nutrition labels since January 1, 2006, you shouldn't believe everything you read. If a food contains less than 500 milligrams of trans fatty acids per serving, the maker can list the trans fat content as zero. That might seem safe enough if you ate just one cookie or two crackers, but several servings of hidden trans fats per day can take a toll on your heart. Your best bet is to steer clear of processed foods. If you do indulge, inspect the list of ingredients on the label and walk away from foods containing partially hydrogenated oils.
5. Imbibe Intelligently. The first studies touting alcohol for heart health looked just at men. Whoops! Researchers trying to fill the gender gap have found some important differences between the sexes. For instance, a study published in the British Medical Journal's online edition found that men gained significant protection against heart disease with one alcoholic drink a day, but women needed just one drink per week to get a similar effect. The bottom line? For women, the protective effect of alcohol comes down to how much, not how often. While up to four ounces a day is fine, don't feel compelled to raise a daily drink for your heart. One 12-ounce beer or four ounces of red wine a week will do nicely.
If you crave more dietary guidance, ask your doctor to prescribe a visit to a registered dietitian. A nutritionist helped Brandolino add fiber to her diet and subtract saturated fat: In came more fruits and veggies, along with ground flaxseed; out went the nightly bowl of pasta smothered in cheese.